The New Surveillance Capitalism

Every time I talk about the Great Reset or the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the Internet of Things or Bodies to friends that are unfamiliar with these terms, I get blank stares or disbelief.  My view that we are rapidly heading into a new era of a globalized biodigital security state, in which daily life for most occurs in a panopticon of surveillance and control, seems like a paranoid stretch to many.   One reason for this dismissal is that a lot of background goes into seeing and understanding the shift, the “Great Reset” that is underway and people don’t have the background.  To many, it seems like the business models and technologies involved in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the tools for the Great Reset, have come out of thin air, and they have no context to comprehend what is happening.

The Great Reset and its tools are extensions of changes in business, technology and governance that have been underway for some time.  Specifically, in this essay I hope to show that the levels of surveillance and control that we are moving into are entirely predictable from the current dominant business model, surveillance capitalism, and the ongoing explosion of internet connected devices in our daily lives.  It has taken me two years to understand these connections better, and I hope to make it easier for others.

Surveillance capitalism is the business model that gives you stuff (apps, browsers, social media, educational software) in exchange for your data, which they aggregate, sell, analyze and ultimately use to manipulate you with.  Facebook is the best known example due to prominent news stories, including the recent “whistle blower” story, Cambridge Analytica, and “The Social Dilemma” documentary.   These high profile stories document how Facebook tracks your likes and clicks, your photos, everywhere you go and what you do on the internet and many places in the real world, and sells the data to third parties for advertising and socio-political manipulation.  They also use your data for machine learning, or artificial intelligence (AI), to improve the algorithms they use to decide what content will best control your attention.   For example, Facebook increases divisive (defined through AI) content on your feed, so they can provide better “engagement” for their advertisers.

It is an aside, but perhaps worth remarking at this point that given how Facebook and other social media platforms work, calls for them to censor “mis” and “dis” information are absurd.  Their algorithms, which promote and amplify extremist content by nature of its ability to garner attention and engagement, are central to their business model.  Their algorithms also promote news and other posts on your newsfeed that AI predicts you are more likely to share or like, meaning that you get exposed more to “friends”’ posts that are like-minded rather than diverse views. These algorithms re-enforce the echo-chambers that harden opinions and beliefs isolated from evidence, to make it easier to target advertisements or other stories to well-defined user groups.  Polarization, which makes it far harder to discern truth in a cluttered information landscape, is thus the bread and butter of social media giants, not an aberration of malignant or ignorant users.

It is crucial to realize that surveillance capitalism is the dominant model not only in Big Tech internet companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, etc. but throughout the economy.  As Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term and wrote a ground breaking book on the subject says:

“[Surveillance Capitalism] has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.”

Surveillance capitalists sell three levels of product – the first is the service that entraps the user, like the Google search engine or a GPS service on a phone.  The second level is the data or information that they are able to capture when you use the service, which includes both data you provide and meta-data, like where and when you used the service.  Location is highly prized real world data from your phone because so much information can be inferred from it with AI.  The captured data is analyzed in increasingly sophisticated AI in order to better predict your behavior, called predictive analytics, either by the party that collected it or by a second party that buys it.

The World Economic Forum, (WEF) a global organization dedicated to the Great Reset, shares this handy table to help you grasp the breadth of the data of interest.

As they say, “Think of personal data as the digital record of everything a person makes and does online and in the world.”  That’s all.

You, as the sum totality of everything you do within the underlying materialistic context, are the product at the second level, in other words.

The purpose of predictive analytics goes far beyond advertising to the “automation of you.” As Zuboff makes clear, surveillance capitalists “sell certainty to business customers who would like to know with certainty what we do. Targeted adverts, yes, but also businesses want to know whether to sell us a mortgage, insurance, what to charge us, do we drive safely? They want to know the maximum they can extract from us in an exchange. They want to know how we will behave in order to know how to best intervene in our behaviour.”  Of course, surveillance capitalists’ customers are not exclusively “business customers,” as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments also use their data, as well as collect their own for predictive analytics.

Surveillance capitalism goes into hyperdrive with the Great Reset because of new business models, technologies and markets coming online.  In short, these models and technologies expand surveillance capitalism’s all seeing eye and manipulative reach from the original market provided by online activities to new “markets” managing social problems and the environment.  This new business model is variously called social impact investing/bonds, social entrepreneurship, or Pay for Success (PFS) financing.  For ease, I will usually use the PFS term.  The specific problems, or markets for investment, are outlined in the United Nations’ (partner of WEF) 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are explicitly referred to by impact investment corporations.

The UN SDG logo is a stylized human iris – suggesting both the all seeing eye and normalizing iris scans.

PFS is an outgrowth of the last 50 years of the neoliberal (and WEF) agenda of erasing distinctions between public and private interests.  Just like surveillance capitalism offers a free or low cost solution (remember, the first level of the “product” discussed above) to a problem (eg. social media “increases connection”), a PFS project offers aid for social or environmental problems.   Even though internet and mobile phone usage is ubiquitous, it is more optional than schooling and healthcare for most people.  Thus, moving surveillance capitalism into the realm of social services, as PFS does, brings its predatory surveillance and control into the daily lives of many more people.  It also opens the most vulnerable populations, who need access to many more publicly funded services, to a lifetime of exploitation for profit.

Venture or philanthro capitalists invest in a PFS program, such as a specific educational intervention, and receive a return on their investment if narrowly pre-defined outcome measures of “success” are met.   For example, the intervention could be a specific social emotional learning (SEL) program and success could be defined as a particular percentage decrease in the need for school mental health services after one year.  Funders, usually the government or large NGOs, reimburse the investors with a return on their investment (a profit) determined through calculated cost offsets.  Cost offsets are the long term costs to the government or NGO that were theoretically avoided due to the PFS intervention.  For example, researchers have calculated a 13% reduction in long term social spending costs (eg. less food assistance, fewer prison terms, less substance abuse counseling) through the provision of birth-to-five early education.  PFS investors then, could receive up to a 13% ROI for funding such education, as long as agreed upon “success” metrics are met. Even if all these savings are used to pay back investors, the government saves money overall by avoiding start up costs and by paying only for “successful” programs.

Information, in the form of captured data, is key to successful PFS deals.  Investors must carefully define both interventions and outcomes to increase chances for success. PFS deals collect data not only to document the success of the present intervention, but also to set up future PFS deals.  As in the original form of surveillance capitalism focused on internet services, the second level of the profitable product in PFS deals is your data, and ultimately, you. Allison McDowell, who has written extensively about the problems with PFS, expresses how it:

“…embodies digital colonialism, the lives of the poor managed through devices imposed upon them by wealthy, often foreign, interests… the economic value of humanity, especially the humanity of black and brown people, will be less in the products they consume (because their purchasing power will have become so limited) than in the data they generate. Most of this data will come from interactions with interventions designed to “fix” them. And now with predictive analytics, algorithms can make pronouncements of “future” problematic behaviors well in advance, setting up device-wielding non-profit partners to continually enforce behavioral and psychic compliance with the structures designed to oppress and contain them. The legacy of colonization and white supremacy will continue in digital form, magnified through the actions of social impact investors.”

A recent article in The Atlantic explains one way that “you” can literally become a product.  Some “innovative” young man featured in the article decided to raise money for a business project by “creat[ing] a financial instrument known as a social token, a form of cryptocurrency whose value revolves around a person, [and] sell shares in himself. Holders of $ALEX would receive 15 percent of Masmej’s income for the next three years, capped at $100,000 overall…”  The article hails the advantages of everyone “becoming an investor,” but acknowledges: “The phenomenon has a dark side. If everyone becomes an investor, the inverse is also true: Everything—and everyone—becomes a potential investment. As part of $ALEX, Alex Masmej designed a “Control My Life” component. Token-holders could vote on his life decisions—whether he should run three miles every day, stop eating red meat, wake up at 6 a.m. Token-holders had a financial stake in his success, so Masmej followed through on their commands.” 

It should be easy to understand how surveillance and control plays a role for investors in this type of economy – it is merely due diligence.

The video below, advertising a new platform for PFS deals, also illustrates the concept of everyone and everything being an investment.  Please spend the two minutes and watch it. Did you see all those numbers around the plants, every tree, and each drop of clean water?  Where does all this “high definition” data to “measure impact” come from? The continuous nature of the data stream shown in the video is a literal representation of the planned and desired level of information required for the best predictive analytics.

The desire and need for information is not limited only to the need to measure or define success metrics for ROI in PFS deals, nor to track one’s investments in the needy or the environment.    Potential returns on investments are actually small potatoes.  The big money comes from the final, third, level of the “product,” the securitization of the debt. Just like bundling mortgage and other debts to create new financial products and trading them in the stock market led to stratospherically higher profits than trading actual assets, betting for (or against) PFS interventions raises the profit potential for these “products” astronomically.  Since PFS “interventions” could consist of all kinds of social services, for example, pre-natal care of a group of women, shorting against its success could mean literally profiting from more dead babies.  Investors in such a scenario would be highly motivated to use as much information as possible to predict participants’ compliance with protocols and likelihood for success — rendering those whom the AI deems “poor” bets less likely to be eligible for services.  Although no one is trading instruments on wall street like this yet, the IXO platform, profiled in the video above, as pointed out in this in depth paper, is set up to allow internal prediction markets in which investors can bet for or against a project’s success.

I recognize that a stock market betting on human welfare may seem far fetched to some, but in the absence of strong regulations against it, financialization is a natural end stage of commodification.  This last year has seen the introduction to the NYSE of a new financial instrument to trade ecosystem services, for example, in a move that parallels the privatization of social services for profit in the environmental realm.

In the past, the information used for predictive analytics has been limited to information captured on the internet and through our smart phones.  However, the devices that are capable of tracking our every move internally and externally through sensors are about to explode as billions of  “smart” devices come on line as the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Internet of Bodies (IoB).  The IoT currently includes our phones, smart appliances, smart meters, smart grids, and connected and “smart” cars, but may soon pervade every area of life and the economy including agriculture, recreation, retail, manufacturing, transportation, health care, and education.   The Internet of Bodies (IoB) currently mostly refers to wearables, for example, to monitor fitness, security, mental health, or disease status. Implanted and embedded devices are also part of the IoB, usually framed at this point as therapeutic devices for the paralyzed, but also for viral detection or convenience. The expansion of the IoT and IoB is contingent upon the roll out of 5G/6G small cell technology.  5G is required to support low latencies for the envisioned billions of devices communicating with each other, not to support current cell phone users internet browsing or gaming.

The IoT and IoB should not be thought of as billions of surveillance devices operating independently, but rather as the word “internet” implies as an interconnected network.  This network has the potential to automate every aspect of life it touches– think The Jetsons.  Imagine walking through a store and scanning RFID tagged items as you put them into a cart.  The cart learns from your smart fridge what you need and lets you know when you are in the appropriate location in the store. When it’s time to leave you just walk out the door after glancing into an iris reader that accesses your digital ID and digital currency.   Once out of the store, you call a self-driving car with your smart phone app and get into the car with another iris scan.   Now, imagine a couple more levels of automation, because AI can choose the items based on your profile and drones can go and get them.

Automation like this requires that disparately owned devices communicate with each other (interoperability) and perform based on authenticated and secure permissions and payment that work with no human intermediary necessary for verification.  Also, in an economy that runs on information — to advertise, to manipulate, to sell, to predict, to manage, and to bet with — as much data as possible needs to be collected from all these sensors and stored in an accessible centralized way.  Biometrically linked decentralized digital IDs connected to digital “wallets” filled with your data and currency are thus as integral to an IoT/IoB information economy as advanced (and energy intensive) telecommunications (5G/6G etc.) infrastructure is.

The WEF, not coincidentally a major proponent of digital ID’s, was envisioning digital ID linked repositories of your data as long ago as 2011:

“In practical terms, a person’s data would be equivalent to their “money.” It would reside in an account where it would be controlled, managed, exchanged and accounted for just like personal banking services operate today. These services would be interoperable so that the data could be exchanged with other institutions and individuals globally. As an essential requirement, the services would operate over a technical and legal infrastructure that is highly trusted.”

The short video below from Microsoft explains how decentralized digital IDs work within a “trust” framework.

“Trust” is an Orwellian marketing term for the technology underlying decentralized digital IDs.  These ID’s are touted as the perfect solution to privacy and security concerns because they can be “self-sovereign”’ identities, meaning that the individual “owns” and controls it and their own data through private “keys.”  Although private keys could theoretically be PINs, automaticity requires finger prints, facial recognition, or iris scans.   The problem with the logic of “self-sovereign” ID is “choice” and “control” are meaningless in the context of rapidly intensifying extreme wealth/ownership concentration and further merging of the private and public sphere.  Surveillance capitalism is already the dominant economic model — this means that already, to keep your information private, you cannot use most apps or use the internet.  Under the PFS model, though, in which public services are doled out in exchange for data, you may not be able to eat, let alone see an (online) doctor, if you choose to maintain your self agency.

However, it is a grave mistake to imagine that only those who need subsidized social services will face coercion.  The Great Reset advances a plan to “manage” the world’s problems for a reason – the global economy and environment is collapsing and shifts are necessary.   We are not far from an economy in which masses are forced into unemployment due to automation and other causes.  Providing a Universal Basic Income is the preferred solution to recirculate enough capital to keep the economy going as it allows the elite to maintain their wealth and control.  Ownership concentration, however, means that UBI will be little more than script that can be spent (in exchange for data) at the “company store” or for rent in the “company town.”

Beyond the need to exchange data for goods and services, digital ID and digital currency in an automated society are perfect means of control.  During covid times, we have been treated to front row seats of the farcical claim that digital ID’s “empower the individual” with control over their own information.  For example, the “ownership” of vaccine information in a vaccine passport does a person little good if they are barred from public life and travel if they keep it private, as has been the case in certain cities in the United States, Canada, and other countries.  We also saw how easy it is to cow government dissent without getting your hands dirty with overt violence by shutting off access to funding and credit in the Canadian Trucker Convoy protests.

While shutting off the truckers funds required an act of the Canadian government, the adoption of Central Bank Digital Currencies will formalize bankers control of your life.  Do you doubt that such control is of interest?  Listen to Agustin Carstens, the general manager of the Bank of International Settlements, (the central bank of central banks that most people have never heard of) at minute 59:50 in the unexcerpted video: “We don’t know who’s using a $100 bill today and we don’t know who’s using a 1,000 peso bill today. The key difference with the CBDC is the central bank will have absolute control on the rules and regulations that will determine the use of that expression of central bank liability, and also we will have the technology to enforce that.”

It is important to note, though, that dystopian levels of surveillance and control only require government passivity, not action nor CBDCs, once ownership is sufficiently concentrated and commerce is more fully digitally mediated.  Anonymity and self-agency is impossible with decentralized digital IDs in automated “company town” societies filled with sensors continuously gathering your information.   Thinking through the “vision” of the 4IR, even just the IoT and IoB, leads to a very different scenario than the fun and efficiency promised by telecom when they promote 5G/6G.   Similarly, on the surface, engaging corporations in the “business” of “solving” (it is really managing with no intention of solving) the world’s problems may initially sound like a good idea.   However, understanding PFS as an expansion of surveillance capitalism into the most fundamental aspects of daily life, in concert with a greatly expanded surveillance network into the physical world, reveals its predatory nature.   The planned automaticity the network enables is a final important element to consider because it requires an “interface” between the human and real, and the digital — digital IDs and currency.  Most of these implications of these parts of the Great Reset and 4IR do not involve hidden conspiracies – they are simply implications of out there in the open business and technology agendas that are generally not discussed.   Seeing the big picture is crucial to assessing the safe guards in place (or not, as the case is) to protect our society against negative outcomes as well as to make informed personal and collective choices.